Several students in the photography department recently received an email informing them that they may have been exposed to the active form of tuberculosis through a student who attended classes spring semester.
Taylorsville/RWD Campus – SC035
Jordan Campus – JHS 011
South City Campus – W175
They were encouraged to come in to the Health and Wellness clinic to get tested free of charge. If they test positive, they would receive a chest x-ray, also free of charge, to verify or rule out the illness.
Student Trisha Hill currently has the active form of tuberculosis and has been quarantined to her home in order to keep the illness from spreading.
She wants to inform students of her situation and help students understand the difference between active and latent forms and encourage them to not be afraid if they test positive.
“From what I hear, students seem to think if someone has a positive skin test, that they are contagious. That is not true. A positive skin test means that the person was exposed to someone who had active TB,” wrote Hill in an email. “It is not easy to contract active TB unless someone had a weaker immune system for some reason and they had to be around someone else who was active.”
Tuberculosis is a bacterium that attacks the lungs, creating holes in the lungs which make it difficult for a person to breathe. Typically, tuberculosis is most commonly found in developing nations.
“Made my lungs their playground”
Hill contracted tuberculosis while she was in the military and stationed in South Korea back in 2002.She had a positive skin test for tuberculosis upon leaving South Korea. She believes that she was exposed to tuberculosis there, though she didn’t experience any symptoms until recently.
“I was told I was exposed in Korea. I took the meds for six months like I was supposed to,” wrote Hill. “I was one of 10 percent of people who are exposed that the TB comes back. The meds worked and I did not have active TB until I somehow weakened my immune system and the TB somehow came out of being dormant and made my lungs their playground.”
The Salt Lake Valley Health Department say that many people panic when they hear that they may have been exposed to tuberculosis because of the bad history of the disease. But they want to reassure the public that it is treatable.
The biggest risk of contracting tuberculosis is through close, prolonged contact to someone who has active tuberculosis and is actively coughing. Family members are at particular risk. Though according to the health department, 90 percent of people exposed to the disease never develop any symptoms.
The Health and Wellness clinic will perform a skin test for free for students who think they may have been exposed to the active form of tuberculosis. Students with a compromised immune system may also want to be tested. People who are taking certain medications such as steroids, or have HIV or cancer may also want to be tested for assurance purposes.
A positive skin test does not necessarily result in active tuberculosis. Some may experience a rash due to an allergy or irritation. Also, there are two types of tuberculosis—latent and active. The latent form of tuberculosis will not spread to others and may not result in any symptoms. The active form will require quarantine and medication.
“A lot of times students say, ‘well I don’t have insurance’ or ‘I can’t afford going to a doctor’,” says Tatiana Burton, Health Promotion Program Manager at the Health and Wellness clinic. “Your first visit here, as a student at Health and Wellness, is free to see a nurse practitioner. We do not take insurance. After that it’s only ten dollars to see a nurse practitioner. If you cannot pay, we do not turn you away.”
Burton explained that some of the symptoms of a person with active tuberculosis might include a bad cough for three weeks or longer, coughing up blood, pain in the chest, losing weight, chills and fever.
She said that many of these symptoms may also be associated with the flu or cold, but that tuberculosis may have more acute coughing symptoms. She expressed the importance of students getting tested if they feel any of these symptoms or if they think they were exposed.
“The great thing about tuberculosis, surprisingly, is it’s a disease that is not only treatable but curable,” Burton says. “The main thing is to really, really focus in on your body and to notice those symptoms.”
Hill wasn’t aware that her tuberculosis was active and went from doctor to doctor for a bad cough that lasted several months. None of the doctors diagnosed her as having tuberculosis. She was first told she had bronchitis. Her doctors now think that the bronchitis weakened her immune system enough that the tuberculosis took over.
When the bronchitis medication did not work, she went to see other doctors who diagnosed her as having a cold, sinus infection, asthma, pneumonia and pertussis at each of her different visits.
Only after the Veterans Hospital did a CT scan due to pain in her kidneys did they find an infection in part of her lungs and refer her to a pulmonary doctor. Almost nine months after she experienced symptoms, they ran more tests that found her positive for tuberculosis.
“I have about 10 holes in my lungs that are all filled with TB,” wrote Hill. “The docs said it is very rare for this to happen to a normal healthy person and they personally had not seen an active TB patient in the U.S. before.”
Students can contact the Health and Wellness clinic at 801-957-4268 or visit their health care provider if they experience any of these symptoms or if they feel they have been exposed.